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Some things just seem to come naturally to some people. You might be a natural at sports — or know someone who is. Perhaps playing music or solving math problems comes naturally to you.

But some people have a problem with something that you’d think would come naturally to everyone: breathing. When someone has asthma, it can make breathing very difficult. And when it’s hard to breathe, it can affect a person’s game, trumpet solo, and even an all-important geometry test.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma (pronounced: AZ-muh) is a lung condition that causes difficulty breathing. It’s a common condition. Lots of people have asthma, from young kids to the elderly.

Asthma affects the bronchial tubes — also known as airways.

With normal breathing, air flows in through the nose or mouth and then into the trachea (windpipe). From there, it easily passes through the airways, into the lungs, and finally back out again.

Breath doesn’t always flow as easily through the airways when people have asthma, though. Their airways that are inflamed so they swell up and produce lots of thick mucus. Inflamed airways are also very sensitive, and things like dust or smoke can cause the smooth muscle around them to tighten up. All these things can narrow the airways and make it hard for air to move through.

People with asthma have difficulty breathing at times. When this happens, it’s known as an asthma flare-up (also called an asthma attack, flare, episode, or exacerbation). Many people with asthma compare a flare-up to the feeling of trying to breathe through a straw — it feels very hard to get air in and out of their lungs.

An asthma flare-up can last for several hours (or longer if a person doesn’t use asthma medicine). When a flare-up is over, the person usually feels better. Between flare-ups, breathing can seem completely normal, although some people may cough or feel as if they are always short of breath.

How Do People Get It?

No one knows exactly why some people develop asthma. Experts think it might be a combination of environmental factors and genes.

Teens with asthma may have a parent or other close relative who has asthma or had it as a child. People who are overweight may be more likely to have asthma, though you don’t need to be overweight to have it.

Asthma isn’t contagious. You can’t catch it from someone who has it.

Things that set off asthma flare-ups are called triggers. Triggers are different for different people. Common triggers that can set off an asthma flare-up include:

  • allergens, like pollen, mold, or other things that cause an allergic reaction in some people
  • airborne irritants and pollutants, like smoke, strong scents, or high levels of air pollutants
  • exercise
  • weather, like cold, dry air or extreme heat or humidity
  • respiratory tract infections, like colds and flu

Plenty of other things can trigger asthma flare-ups, too: Some girls find their asthma can get worse just before their periods. Even laughing, crying, and yelling can sometimes cause the airways to tighten in sensitive lungs.

How Do People Know They Have It?

Many people with asthma find out they have it when they’re kids. To diagnose someone with asthma, a doctor will do a physical exam and ask about a person’s medical history, including whether anyone else in the family has asthma. If your doctor thinks you have asthma, he or she may send you to a specialist.

To find out if someone has asthma, doctors might do tests like spirometry (pronounced: spye-RAH-muh-tree) or peak flow meter tests. These involve blowing into devices that can measure how well the lungs are working.

A doctor may also recommend allergy tests or exercise tests to see whether asthma is brought on by allergens or physical activity. Occasionally, doctors use X-rays to diagnose asthma.

Doctors treat each asthma case individually because every person is different. Some people have mild asthma. For others it’s more severe. Asthma triggers are also different depending on the person. That’s one reason why people with asthma need to work closely with a doctor to create an asthma action plan that’s right for them.

How Is It Treated?

There’s no cure for asthma, but it usually can be managed so flare-ups can be prevented. Doctors treat asthma in two ways: avoiding triggers and taking medicine.

Avoiding Triggers

People with asthma need to avoid things that might cause flare-ups. Of course, some triggers can’t be completely avoided (like catching a cold). But people can control their exposure to other triggers, such as pet dander, for example.

With exercise-induced asthma, doctors aim to help people manage physical activity, not avoid it. Exercise can help people stay healthier overall. Doctors can help people find treatments that allow them to them participate in their sports — in fact, a number of professional athletes have asthma.

Taking Medicine

Most asthma medicines are breathed directly into the lungs (inhaled). But some asthma medicines are pills or liquids.

There are two kinds of medicines:

  1. Quick-relief medicines, which act fast. They can be used as needed to stop things like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath when a person first notices them. Quick-relief medicines act fast, but their effect doesn’t last long. These kinds of medicines are also called “fast-acting” or “rescue” medicines.
  2. Long-term control medicines, which manage asthma and prevent symptoms from happening in the first place. Many people need to take daily medicines to manage their asthma. These medicines help prevent flare-ups before they start. They work differently from rescue medicines because they treat the problem of airway inflammation instead of the symptoms (coughing, wheezing, etc.) that it causes. For that reason, they are also called “controller” or “maintenance” medicines. Doctors also prescribe these medicines as a way to minimize permanent lung changes that can happen when someone has asthma.

    Long-term control medicines can take days or even weeks to start working. Regular use of long-term control medicines should lessen the need for quick-relief medicines, but they need to be taken every day or they can’t do their job.

Some people with asthma only need quick-relief medicine; others need both kinds of medicine to keep their asthma in check.

Monitoring Asthma

People with asthma also need to monitor their condition to prevent flare-ups and help their doctors adjust medicines if necessary. To do this, doctors often ask people to keep an asthma diary — a daily log that helps doctors track how someone feels and when the person takes medicines. Some doctors also want their patients to use a peak flow meter as a way to monitor their asthma.

Dealing With Asthma

The best way to control asthma is prevention. That means avoiding triggers and taking any long-term control medicines your doctor prescribes.

Keep your environment clear of potential allergens, like dust or secondhand smoke. Don’t smoke (and quit if you do). Pay attention to the weather and stay indoors or limit your exercise to indoor activities when you know weather or air pollution may affect you.

Be smart about exercise. It’s a great way to keep the body and mind healthy, so if you get exercise-induced asthma flare-ups, talk to your doctor about how to manage them. If you get flare-ups during a game or workout, stop what you’re doing until the flare-up has cleared or you’ve taken rescue medicine. When the symptoms have gone, you can start up again.

Asthma doesn’t have to prevent you from doing what you love. Yes, it takes a bit of work (and remembering!). But if you follow your asthma action plan, take your medicines properly, recognize your symptoms and triggers, and check in with your doctor regularly, you can do anything that people without asthma do, including playing sports.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014